Prior to European contact, Indigenous people were born into a Tribe and their sense of belonging was never in doubt.
Colonial assimilation policies changed that. A little discussed government tactic used to undermine Tribal identity, divide Indian peoples, and steal Native lands is the legal fiction of “blood quantum.”
Instead of traditional kinship ties of belonging to a Tribe, the government imposed a formula to determine who had enough Indian blood to qualify as a Tribal member and who did not.
Blood quantum falls in that category of things colonists made up to get what they wanted.
It’s a form of genocide.
Blood quantum rules can affect Indigenous peoples’ sense of belonging, as well as more practical issues such as their ability to participate in Tribal affairs and their eligibility for Tribal benefits.
Blood quantum rules have been around for more than a century, but they are very much alive today, included in Tribal Constitutions. A number of Indigenous leaders see blood quantum’s continued use as an existential threat.
A race against time
Panelist and attorney Gabe Galanda said of the 574 federally recognized Native Nations in the United States, approximately 400 of them use blood quantum as the, or a, metric for citizenship.
Galanda, a member of the Round Valley Indian Confederation of Northern California, said the fundamental tenant of traditional Indigenous kinship societies is reciprocity: The “reciprocal duty to one another, your people, your clan, your long house. … That was really the underpinning of how we belonged.”
Blood quantum metrics have taken the place of kinship ties in defining Tribal membership.
Blood quantum refers to the fraction of blood an Indigenous person has from a given Tribe. (As some Indigenous peoples bitterly note, only dogs, horses, and Indians use blood line pedigrees as a form of identity.)
Here’s the problem: Under blood quantum rules, marriage outside the Tribe effectively “dilutes” the blood line. For instance, children born to a “full-blooded” Tribal member and a non-Tribal member would have a 50 percent blood quantum. As more such marriages happen, children of following generations could have a blood quantum of one-fourth, one-sixteenth, one thirty-second, and other variations.
Wayne Ducheneaux II, executive director of the Native Governance Center, says he’s officially five-sixteenths Cheyenne River Sioux. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) issues Native people a ‘”Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood” showing their blood quantum and Tribal affiliation, he said.
“It can complicate dating and relationships and strain families,” Ducheneaux said. “If you want to make sure your future children are enrolled, you have to do the math on a first date.”
Panelist Jill Doerfler, professor and department head of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, has studied Tribal constitutional reforms for decades, and engaged in them.
“I heard so many people talk about their children or their grandchildren and a sadness that they weren’t included within the nation,” said Doerfler, a descendant of the White Earth Nation.
There is a strong desire by elders to see changes before they die, she said.
Blood quantum is the reason you hear some Indigenous people introduce themselves as a member of a Tribe and others introduce themselves as “descendants.” Descendants don’t have enough blood quantum to qualify as members.
Data projections show some Native Nations will see steep population drops in the near future if blood quantum rules continue, Ducheneaux said.
Galanda said mathematically, the continued use of blood quantum “is intended to eradicate each and every one of our nations or societies from existing. We are in a race against time.”
A colonial tool
In 1705, the Virginia colony implemented the first Indian blood quantum laws, according to an article in the Wellian Magazine. “Anyone who possessed ½ or greater Indian blood was deemed to be a legally inferior human, and could have their civil rights stripped away.”
Blood quantum weren’t used to define Tribal membership until the 1930s, when Tribes began writing their own constitutions. (More on this in Part II.)
The 1887 Dawes Act set the stage for blood quantum rules. The law divided communally held Tribal lands into individual parcels, between 40 and 160 acres. Those parcels were distributed to qualifying Indian families. The federal government took a census of Tribal members to determine eligibility for land parcels.
The 20th Century Tribal constitutions typically used these census roles to define Tribal membership. As for their descendants, constitutions often required them to have at least one-quarter Tribal blood quantum for citizenship eligibility.
Megan Hill, Director of the Honoring Nations program at Harvard and moderator of the Native Governance Center panel discussion, said while blood quantum is a colonial construct, Tribes have adopted it into their constitutions.
“Defining your citizenship is probably the most sovereign act a Tribal Nation can make,” said Hill, who is Oneida. By continuing to use blood quantum: “it’s essentially genocide that we have internalized and put into policy.”
Ducheneaux explained why some Tribal members worry about moving away from blood quantum citizenship rules.
Some worry that scarce resources could become more scarce if the Tribe expands citizenship and the population grows significantly, he said. Others worry about cultural erosion “due to addition of disconnected ‘outsiders’ becoming members of their nation.”
“One of the biggest worries is that these same ‘outsiders’ could run for Council and sell land, a practice not uncommon in history,” he said.
Panelist Elizabeth Rule, an Assistant Professor of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies at American University and a member of the Chickisaw Nation, said her studies include looking at Tribes who are confronting the realities of declining Tribal membership and what that means for the future.
“I am very inspired, amidst all of the darkness and controversy and hurt that gets wrapped up in blood quantum issues … by a number of Tribal Nations who are adopting very innovative practices to be more inclusive, to return to some of their more traditional kinship network ways of understanding their relations, and what that means for participation in the sovereign nation.”
Next: Blood Quantum Primer, Part II: Debating Tribal Constitutions
Correction: An earlier version of the post incorrectly stated how lands were allotted under the Dawes Act. It was done through federal census rolls, not blood quantum. Blood quantum wasn’t introduced until the 1930s. The original post also was edited for clarity.